A look at potential franchise tag targets for each of the AFC North teams. The window for tagging players opens Monday and closes March 5.
Like the Ravens, the Steelers have a history of frequently using the tag. Pittsburgh has done so for the past three seasons, tagging offensive tackle Max Starks in 2009, kicker Jeff Reed in 2010 and linebacker LaMarr Woodley in 2011. Starks and Woodley never played under the tag, reaching multi-year deals with the Steelers before the season began.
The Steelers face the toughest decision in the division in regards to the franchise tag this year.
Top candidate: Mike Wallace, wide receiver. The Steelers have to decide whether to place a first-round tender on Wallace, who is a restricted free agent, or put the franchise tag on him. If the Steelers choose to offer him a first-round tender, the Steelers would pay Wallace $2.7 million for this season, but it leaves the team vulnerable.
Although Pittsburgh can match any offer made to a restricted free agent, the cap-strapped Steelers might not be able to do so if another team offers Wallace a front-loaded deal. The New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers are two teams that should concern the Steelers. They have the cap room and would only have to part with late first-round picks (49ers have the 30th overall pick, and the Patriots have the 31st) to get him. That's right. If the Steelers can't match a first-round tender from the Patriots or 49ers, they would only get one of the last picks of the first round in return. Pittsburgh would have 10 days after the offer sheet is signed to match it.
The best way for the Steelers to protect Wallace is by putting the franchise tag on him. But the tag for wide receivers is projected to be $9.5 million -- which is $6.8 million more than the first-round tender for a restricted free agent. It will be difficult for the Steelers to use the tag when they are about $11 million over the salary cap right now.
Pittsburgh can free up about $7 million in cap space if it restructures quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and linebacker James Harrison. The Steelers can also clear more space by cutting wide receiver Hines Ward, guard Chris Kemoeatu, defensive end Aaron Smith and inside linebackers Larry Foote and James Farrior. But that still might not be enough for the Steelers to put the tag on Wallace, sign their other restricted free agents and fill the holes on the roster (starting cornerback, backup quarterback, No. 4 wide receiver and offensive line depth).
In all likelihood, the Steelers will be forced to use the first-round tender on Wallace and sweat it out that another team won't put them in a difficult position.
Dark horse: No one. There is no other free agent under consideration for the tag. Of the 12 unrestricted free agents, the only ones that the Steelers will look to retain are: a backup quarterback (either Byron Leftwich or Charlie Batch), wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery and cornerback William Gay.